Ego Boundaries

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Ego boundaries, a key concept in the theory of Paul Federn, form a necessary basis for distinguishing real from not real. Federn saw it as a kind of sense organ that differentiates what is part of the ego at a given moment from all other psychic elements.

Federn employed the term ego to refer to a person's ongoing bodily and psychic experience, the "I," the self, one's identity. This phenomenological description can be contrasted with that of the ego in Freud's structural model.

Victor Tausk (1919/1933), in his paper on the "influencing machine," first utilized the concept of the regressive loss of ego boundaries as a symptom of schizophrenia. Paul Federn (1926/1952; 1928) viewed ego boundaries as a key element in all ego functioning and postulated a boundary between the ego and the external world, which is subject to perception. He further extended the boundary concept by identifying an internal boundary between the ego and the unconscious, open to introspection.

In agreement with Freud, Federn understood the earliest differentiation between external and internal to result from body movements. Such a distinction eventually results in the establishment of dynamic (continually expanding and contracting) ego boundaries.

Federn's concept of ego boundary is closely associated with his other key concepts of ego feeling, ego state, and ego cathexis. Both ego boundary and ego feeling require for their maintenance an ego cathexis, which may be a blend of three kinds: libidinal, destructive, and self-preservative. When the inner boundary is critically weakened or lost, the return of repressed ego states falsifies reality and can result in delusions and hallucinations. When the cathexis of the outer boundary is weakened or lost, the sense of reality is disturbed, and external objects are discerned as unknown, strange, and unreal. Federn utilized his concepts of ego boundaries and sense of reality to clarify such phenomena as estrangement, depersonalization, delusions, hallucinations, dream experience, and drug effects.

Edith Jacobson (1954) has employed ego boundaries in psychoanalytic conceptualizations of the boundary between self and object representations. A remaining challenge is to work out the relationships among inner, outer, and self-object boundaries.

Marvin S. Hurvich

See also: Ego; Ego psychology.


Bergmann, Martin S. (1963). The place of Paul Federn's ego psychology in psychoanalytic metapsychology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11, 97-116.

Federn, Paul. (1928). Narcissism in the structure of the ego. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 9, 401-419.

. (1952). Ego psychology and the psychoses. New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1926.)

Jacobson, Edith. (1954). The self and the object world: Vicissitudes of their infantile cathexes and their influence on ideational and affective development. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 9, 75-127.

Tausk, Viktor. (1933). On the origin of the "influencing machine" in schizophrenia. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2, 519-556. (Original work published 1919)